No one finds—or makes—competence as sexy as Aaron Sorkin. There’s a scene in the middle of the Season 2 premiere of HBO’s The Newsroom when producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) has to fix a factual error in a story that is 60 seconds from going live. She gets the original reporter—who’s at a Benihana with his kids—to replace the phrase “charged him with attempted rape” with “are investigating charges of attempted rape” in the middle of a live broadcast. Before the clapping and admiring smiles in the control room have faded, another technical problem crops up with the graphics feed. McHale improvises on the spot, putting the graphics on a screen behind anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and switching cameras just in the nick of time.
She’s good at what she does. It’s the defining characteristic of every single protagonist in all four of Sorkin’s TV series. Moments like this—or the rapid-fire banter between McAvoy and his lawyer, or Sloan Sabbith and Charlie Skinner, or most every other piece of dialogue in the show—are made to be marveled at, whether or not they move the plot forward. Sorkin subscribes to the David Mamet school of over-written dialogue. Nobody talks like that. But we wish they did.
And that’s the delight of watching his work. He takes very real worlds that attract the best and brightest in their fields and imagines idealized versions filled with idealists. Whether the end goal is the best damned sports broadcast, White House, variety show or cable news show, Sorkin likes to prescribe his solutions to the corrupting forces surrounding all of them. That can come off as preachy at times, but there’s enough of an attempt to understand at least the most reasonable opposing viewpoints and enough interpersonal drama to appeal to those who might not share his left-leaning views. McAvoy is a moderate Republican whose vitriol is mostly directed towards those he feels are ruining his party (he called The Tea Party “The American Taliban”). If you share anything close to his viewpoint, you can spend an hour thinking this is how it should be done.
It would all be very smug if the characters weren’t often humbled by both their mistakes and the consequences of following their convictions, despite—or possibly because of—their cleverness and dedication. That’s the premise that begins Season 2: McAvoy is seated before four ACN lawyers who are preparing his defense. It seems like of the staff of News Night with Will McAvoy was duped into reporting a false, major story, and it could spell an end to the show.
With that set-up, we flash back to just after the end of Season 1, when the fallout for McAvoy’s “American Taliban” comment reaches the floor of the Capitol, where the president of ACN is shut out of a SOPA meeting. The complaints of the bosses (Jane Fonda as Leona Lansing and Chris Messina as her son) actually seem reasonable here after their villainous approach in Season 1. It’s enough to make Charlie (Sam Waterson) take Will off the channel’s 9/11 coverage (The Taliban comment seems insensitive to victims of the attacks, even though they were perpetrated by al-Qaeda).
The relationship fallout also continues with Jim Harper and Maggie Jordan’s awkward exchange in the wake of Maggie’s season-ending decision to stay with Don rather than act on her feelings toward Jim. The tension leads Jim to volunteer to go on the Romney campaign bus. But Maggie’s love confession from last season made its way on YouTube, and Don leaves her anyway.
Jim’s replacement in the newsroom matches Sloan’s (and Tom Junod’s) passion for reporting on drones, but Will is gun-shy to appear anything but anti-terrorist, letting the pro-drone general (who, we learn, will somehow be responsible for leading them on the black-ops story wild-goose chase) have the last word on the subject. Will’s biggest flaws are his arrogance and his need to be loved by an audience, and once again he’s been brought low. He drinks to his regret, remembering when the American people wanted his reassuring presence at times like these.
It’s a darker beginning to a season that promises to be filled with tribulations (Maggie, Will hints during one of the rare present-day scenes, has been through hell during a trip to Uganda and now sports short pink hair). But that’s a good thing. If the joy of watching this show is seeing creative and intelligent people at their best, the odds need to be stacked against them. And if the enemy isn’t The Tea Party or network bigwigs, but their own mistakes, the smugness is completely gone. This is bigger than life or death. Their careers are on the line.